Most small business owners I know have an “it’s complicated” type of relationship to setting goals.
They know they’re supposed to set goals for their life and business. They know they’re supposed to make plans to meet those goals.
Some do, some don’t.
Some set goals one month only to abandon them the next. Some set goals and power through them even when new information comes to light. Some spend months (or longer) just trying to figure out what goals to set. Some swear by their goal-setting process but end up judging themselves or their actions harshly when it doesn’t quite work out.
I get it.
My relationship to goal-setting was always complicated, too.
I’m an achievement-oriented, hyper-competitive, winning-is-my-personal-identity type.
Setting goals and racing toward the finish line was just how I functioned.
I’ve never seen a shiny medal I didn’t want to win.
Unfortunately, chasing medals and merit badges hasn’t always led me down the right-for-me path.
My personal specialty is choosing a goal based on limited (and often faulty) information and then calculating the fastest path to achieving it without regard for long-term ramifications.
Promotions, scholarships, leadership roles, partnerships…
…if it feels like a step up, it’s the step I want to take as quickly as I can.
As you might imagine, that means I’m quite good using goals to steer my business and life away from what really matters to me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize my relationship to goal-setting was complicated until a couple of years ago.
I realized that I set goals for my life and business because I was competing with others. If they could do it, then I wanted to prove that I could do it too.
I realized that I set goals because I was always aiming for bigger, better, and more impressive. I felt more worthy (of attention, influence, relationship, even love) if my goals were lofty.
And as a result, things got really uncomfortable. Running my business was stressful. Showing up for my clients felt like theater.
I drank too much. I spent too much money.
I vacillated between beating myself up for not being good enough for the goals that I set and letting myself off the hook for not following through.
My goals had created an unsustainable cycle of constant growth at the expense of real life improvement.
I had a bit of a break down—one of those “chuck it” moments when you want to throw everything away.
But instead of letting the moment pass, I actually started throwing things away. I looked at my life and my business and I reexamined everything.
I slowly started to let go of my goals and explored new ways of showing up. I deliberately dismantled my own systems and carefully rebuilt new ones.
Now, your “it’s complicated” relationship with goal-setting might not look like mine…
…although I know my experience is not uncommon at all.
Your experience with goal-setting might be that you don’t know what goals to set or that you don’t stick with goals once you’ve decided on something.
Your experience might be that, while you do set and achieve goals, you don’t see much real improvement in your life or business because you don’t really push yourself beyond what you already know you’re capable of.
Regardless, I’d like to pose an alternative to goal-setting.
And if not an outright rejection of setting goals, a first step that makes the process of setting goals something that is more aligned with a sustainable plan for yourself and your business.
Today, I set commitments instead of goals.
A commitment is an idea that I want to intentionally orient my life and business toward.
Think of it this way: a goal is a destination, a commitment is a direction.
A goal is saying you want to end up at the beach. A commitment is hopping in your car and driving toward the coast.
Now, that might seem like semantics. And maybe when it comes to the car metaphor, it is.
But when it comes to your life or business? There’s a fundamental difference.
Setting a goal asks you to name the thing you want without regard for the process of achieving it.
At best, it’s a stab in the dark most of the time. At worst, it means you can easily get yourself into a pickle when you realize your goal is going to require you to spend your time, money, or energy in ways that don’t align with who you are or what you’re all about.
Sometimes it works out. Maybe you discover that you actually like a new way of operating or you break out of your comfort zone to do something that seemed impossible.
But other times, you end up halfway to your goal doing all sorts of things you never wanted to do (and still don’t want to do).
Setting a commitment, on the other hand, asks you to own the process first.
A commitment is about choosing how you want to show up, what you want to have guiding your choices, and why you will take certain actions and not others.
Setting a commitment puts your attention and intention on how what you want from life or business impacts what you do and who you are on a daily basis.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
In the past, I might have set a goal (okay, I did set a goal) to generate $200,000 in a product launch.
While that goal gives me a specific target, it doesn’t give me any direction on how to create that result. My plan included a whole host of ideas for hitting that number and, when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go, I started getting creative (i.e. desperate) in the ways I was willing to make that happen.
To be clear, I didn’t do anything awful! But I did do things that didn’t serve my longer term goals, I put undue pressure on my team and myself, and I just created completely unnecessary stress.
On the other hand, last year, I set a commitment to “work the system.”
Working the system applied to my own personal task management. It applied to my marketing & sales strategy. It applied to our offers. It applied to my half marathon training and my powerlifting program.
“Work the system” was a constant reminder that I was committed to sticking with what I started and trusting myself to improve and achieve gradually.
My life was meaningfully better last year than the year before because of this commitment.
This year, my commitments are:
- Embrace uncertainty.
- Question normal.
- Expect success.
Considering everything is uncertain right now and normal has been put on hold for the foreseeable future, these commitments apply now more than ever.
Instead of having to throw out goals when they no longer fit the circumstances of life, business, or the ever-changing market…
…I have a steadfast commitment to ideas that guide me in clear but flexible ways.
Truthfully, it’s not that I’ve stopped setting goals. There are still some targets I have in mind (running a marathon in less than 4 hours this year, for instance) but my commitments guide me more on a day-to-day and long-term basis than goals ever did.
And when I do set a goal, that goal is based on my commitments.
Functionally and operationally, commitments work better for me.
My commitments help me stay present instead of always working for some future goal.
They help me tune into my habits and behavior patterns so I can adjust the ones that aren’t working for me. They help me see how I’m doing enough and how I can continue to improve.
My commitments help me steer my life and business in a direction I feel really, really good about—and that’s something that goals could never quite do.
Ready to set commitments that shape your life and business for the better?
I’ve created a short 8-part course called The Commitment Blueprint so you can set commitments to guide your life and business planning (even in the midst of uncertainty). Plus, that course is embedded into my own planning and task management tool called The Leadership Dashboard, a done-for-you Notion template.
It’s a complete system for organizing your long-term projects, daily task management, and big picture commitments all in one place.
Tara McMullin is a small business community leader, podcaster, and writer. With over a decade of experience bringing small business owners together, she’s on a mission to facilitate honest conversations about how we build businesses that work better—without hype or gimmicks.
She’s the founder of What Works, a podcast and community platform connecting small business owners with the tools, ideas, and relationships they need to build stronger businesses. Her work has been featured on Fast Company, Inc, Forbes, Copyblogger, and The Huffington Post.